The Hotness
Games|People|Company
Legacy of Dragonholt
Ironsworn
City of Brass (5E)
Android: Shadow of the Beanstalk
Hogwarts: A Role-Playing Game
Dread
The Armitage Files
B2: The Keep on the Borderlands
World of Gor: Gorean Roleplaying World Encyclopaedia
These Weird Breads Are Sad
The Solo Investigator's Handbook
Wollstonecraft The Role-Playing Game
Maze of the Blue Medusa
The Two-Headed Serpent
Slaves of the Machine God
The Forsaken Kingdom of Fungithrill
Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (Second Edition)
Labyrinth Lord
Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook
Apocalypse World
Microscope
Vornheim: The Complete City Kit
Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Beginner Box
Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set
Monster Manual (D&D 5e)
Kids on Bikes: Deluxe Edition
Forbidden Lands Core Boxed Set
Passion Guides My Hand
Book 01: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
The Flood
Warhammer Adventure
B1: In Search of the Unknown
Masks of Nyarlathotep (3rd & 4th edition)
The Deryni Adventure Game
Eyes Only
B10: Night's Dark Terror
Deadlands
The Great Pendragon Campaign
T1: The Village of Hommlet
Forgotten Realms Campaign Set
Book 1: The War-Torn Kingdom
Faction Guide
Swords & Wizardry Complete Rulebook
The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild
Gildenbrief (Issue 25 - Jul 1992)
Monster of the Week
The Covetous Poet's Adventure Creator and Solo GM Guidebook
Player's Handbook (D&D 5e)
The Strange
Microscope Explorer
Recommend
32 
 Thumb up
 Hide
4 Posts

Dread» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Dread: Horror Roleplaying at its Finest! rss

Your Tags: Add tags
Popular Tags: [View All]
Chris Norwood
United States
Graham
North Carolina
flag msg tools
designer
badge
Come visit me at GamerChris.com for all sorts of chewy, gamery goodness!
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Dread

Designers: Epidiah Ravachol and Nathaniel Barmore
Publisher: The Impossible Dream (2004)
Geekdo Rank/Rating: #270/7.06

Dread is "a Game of Horror and Hope", an incredibly elegant horror-themed game with some very novel mechanics for character creation and task/conflict resolution. I've had the opportunity to run two sessions of this wonderful game, and think that they have been two of the most entertaining RPG games that I've ever participated in. So if that sounds interesting to you, read on!


The System

The first really cool thing about Dread is the character creation system. Character creation for Dread is literally just filling out a questionnaire designed by the "Host" (what Dread calls the GM). The questions should help define personality, establish skills, and more than anything else, give them investment in the coming story. There are no numerical "stats" or anything; players and the Host simply look at the answers on the questionnaire to determine what skills, background, and personality traits the characters have.

The other "system" element in Dread (and really, it may the only other system element) is the use of a Jenga tower. Any time that the characters try to do something that could fail, they have to pull one or more blocks from the tower. If it falls, they fail and their character is removed from the game, usually because of death. But there's also the possibility of intentionally knocking down the tower, which still results in the death of the character, but also grants them success in a very dramatic and meaningful way. And if you're thinking, "you lost me at using Jenga... that's just stupid," then you are simply not fathoming the depth of tension and impending threat that an increasingly rickety tower can generate.


What I Think...

Dread has a lot going for it. And I'll start with the element that won it the 2006 "Most Innovative" Ennie - the Jenga tower. Unfortunately, I don't think that you can really understand exactly how effective the tower is until you see it in action. Purely as a tension-building device, it's just brilliant. Because every pull that is made makes the structure more and more unstable, and everybody knows that it's leading to an eventual accident that will have very real and very drastic implications for one of their characters. And as opposed to most "random" methods of conflict or task resolution, results never feel arbitrary or inappropriate for the situation.

And that leads me directly to talk about how the tower is a perfect pacing mechanism for the game. Early on, making a pull is stressful, but not really a big deal. As the tension of the story grows and actions become more important, the stress of the pull itself also increases. There is a real feeling of building towards something in the story, and almost inevitably, the tower falling (or being knocked down intentionally) coincides with a very pivotal part of the narrative. Afterwards, there is a natural break in the tension (as there usually is in horror stories), but it gets right back on track since you now have to rebuild the tower and make extra pulls for everyone that has been removed so far. So you get a very organic story structure that still accelerates towards the end, with rising drama throughout.

The other element of brilliance in Dread is the questionnaire. Simultaneously, it informs the player of a few basic facts about their character, gives the opportunity to define skills and background, throws up roleplaying flags both for the player and the Host, establishes motivation and personality, and more than anything else, helps the player identify with and care about their character. It takes what is essentially a pre-generated character for a one-shot game and turns it into a fleshed-out and beloved PC. And don't in any way discount the importance of this process, because for a horror game to work and for the tension to be real, the player must care about their characters and what happens to them.

Dread is a game where characters are going to die. You can certainly tweak how deadly it is with how often the Host requires pulls from the tower, but the whole structure is set up for at least one or two people to buy a farm during play. But more than any other RPG I've ever played, Dread tends to drive towards those character deaths being meaningful and dramatic. The whole sacrifice mechanic allows players to choose the terms of their character's ending, to make it meaningful to the story and to who they are. And even when the tower falls accidentally, the mere possibility of sacrifice makes that death seem so much more tragic and real, because everyone can realize the lost potential of that character. I've played some cool games that created really entertaining stories before, but never one that could connect so viscerally with the players.

And the last thing that I'll say about Dread is that it, more than any other game I've ever played, is all about pure role-playing. It's almost the definition of a game where the mechanics "get out of the way" and let you explore your characters and the story. But unlike so many traditional RPG's where you just have to ignore obtrusive rules, the "system" of Dread actually supports and encourages play in every way. It's simple enough to be someone's first foray into roleplaying (as it was for one of my players), but it's good enough to fascinate even an old roleplaying veteran like me.


The Verdict

Dread isn't quite a "perfect" RPG (I'd love it if there was a way to eliminate the "solo laboring" of the Host), but it's about as close as I've ever found. Whether you're looking for an easy entry point into roleplaying, or you're just wanting to focus more on character and story rather than system and statistics, Dread is a great choice. I give it the absolute hightest recommendation I can, and just to put a number on it, I rate it a 9.5 out of 10.

26 
 Thumb up
1.25
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Kevin
msg tools
badge
Avatar
Fantastic and well-stated review of one of my favorite RPGs. Some comments:

kilroy_locke wrote:
And if you're thinking, "you lost me at using Jenga... that's just stupid," then you are simply not fathoming the depth of tension and impending threat that an increasingly rickety tower can generate.


Agreed here. I think the biggest issue most people have with the game is conceptual. The mechanic is so out-there that it takes a fairly typical RPG structure (GM + players; other than intentional sacrifice, players have no OOC narrative control a la "drama points" or "plot points") and makes it seem like this crazy thing. When actually, it's fairly traditional from a story standpoint.

Quote:
And as opposed to most "random" methods of conflict or task resolution, results never feel arbitrary or inappropriate for the situation.


This I disagree with very slightly. Since knocking over the tower = removal from the story (usually through PC death) it is possible for someone to totally blow it and knock over the tower early in the game, thus demanding their removal at an dramatically-inopportune time. The book recommends a fix (PC continues, GM may declare PC dead by fiat at any future time) but this feels like more of a hack than anything else. I think a better choice would be allowing them to continue but requiring that for every pull, they have to pull double the number of blocks. Thus if they continue, they will endanger everyone else's characters due to the increasing speed at which the tower becomes unstable.

Either of the fixes though (official or mine) removes some of the threat of the tower from the early part of the game, and thus works against the whole narrative construct that the tower provides. Luckily, most people aren't clumsy enough to make it a problem.

Quote:
Dread isn't quite a "perfect" RPG (I'd love it if there was a way to eliminate the "solo laboring" of the Host), but it's about as close as I've ever found.


I mostly agree. There's a lot of scenarios available out there, so the GM doesn't have to work too much -- and since each is a one-shot with PCs included, the GM doesn't have to shoehorn a continuing party into whatever scenario he brings home.

But Dread is really only great for one-shots. Due to the fact that mechanically, Dread is designed to kill about 2/3rds or more of the PCs every session, an ongoing campaign is not really possible. Also, the tower makes everything kind of granular. You can't have slow declines into madness like CoC's sanity mechanic.

Another possible red flag is that the game basically encourages a degree of railroading. The GM is instructed to pace his calls for pulls according to the demands of the story, so the tower falls and people die at appropriate parts. Approaching the climax but the tower isn't rickety enough? Start calling for pulls for every mundane task. While I don't deny that this works from a game/story perspective, it sometimes feels like it's taking away the rewards for players' past successes.

And it has the problems endemic to all investigative types of games: If the story demands that the PCs find a series of clues that leads them to a thrilling climax in the mad scientist's lair, then by gods, they're going to find those clues and get to the climax. Granted, the players need to have a certain amount of buy-in for the type of game they're playing, and resource-management investigative games like Dread or GUMSHOE do a much better job at making meaningful choices than a pure dice-fest like CoC. In the end, it comes down to GM skill at riffing off the players' choices and responding to their actions and emotions in order to tell a solid story.

But doesn't it always?

Again, fantastic review.
13 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Chris Norwood
United States
Graham
North Carolina
flag msg tools
designer
badge
Come visit me at GamerChris.com for all sorts of chewy, gamery goodness!
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Thanks for the feedback!

Personally, I kind of like the "walking dead" patch for early tower accidents. In fact, for the scenario that I've run (called Unauthorized Human Trials), I built in some direction about what could happen in this case. But in the games that I've had, the tower only fell unintentionally once, and it was at a dramatic point in the story. So I have no idea if it happens more frequently with other groups.

I see your point about railroading. But at the same time, Dread seems to be a great "sandbox" type of game. You plan out a few key encounters that you have for them to explore, and generally try to direct the story in a general direction without pushing too much. But it's so easy to improvise (since it's all narrative for the most part), that you can just roll with the players' lead or "have a gang of ninjas" burst in when things get slow.

And I don't know that Hosts really need to artifically manipulate pulls for "mundane" tasks like you mentioned. Rather, as they accelerate towards a climax in the story, the Host should find ways to throw complications at them. So instead of making them pull to blow their nose, have the lights go out or an alarm go off or a fire start or anything else that would make it harder to perform the tasks they are trying to do. Then the tension rises even more, and there's a really good reason for them to be making all the pulls you need.

I don't really know how to respond to your thoughts about investigative games. If the railroading flaw is endemic to all of them, the only real solution is to not play them. But if you like the genre, then I think that Dread (and it's "no fail" way of finding clues) is far superior (as you said) to any traditional RPG's way of handling it.

But thinking about a different way to do investigations gave me an idea. Have you ever played the boardgame Tobago? In it, the players add clue cards to treasure maps until the location is narrowed down to one particular space. And I wonder if an RPG could do something like that; where there is no pre-determined "answer", but where there is still tension and drama in the story. I know that [rpgitem=43814] (which I really need to play, by the way) does something like this, but I wonder if it could go even further...
6 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Maitre Sinh
France
Marseille
Provence
flag msg tools
mbmbmbmbmb
kilroy_locke wrote:
!

But thinking about a different way to do investigations gave me an idea. Have you ever played the boardgame Tobago? In it, the players add clue cards to treasure maps until the location is narrowed down to one particular space. And I wonder if an RPG could do something like that; where there is no pre-determined "answer", but where there is still tension and drama in the story. I know that [rpgitem=43814] (which I really need to play, by the way) does something like this, but I wonder if it could go even further...


...i think you should really try this one:

http://story-games.com/forums/comments.php?DiscussionID=1443...
1 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Front Page | Welcome | Contact | Privacy Policy | Terms of Service | Advertise | Support BGG | Feeds RSS
Geekdo, BoardGameGeek, the Geekdo logo, and the BoardGameGeek logo are trademarks of BoardGameGeek, LLC.